Still the hurt was apparent after the Rebels fell hard to powerful Florida 80-59 in the semi-finals of the SEC Tournament. The looks on the players' faces and their head coach told the story.
But their story will continue. It won't be in the NCAA Tournament, unless some really strange things happen in a good way for Ole Miss. Andy Kennedy admitted that after this one when he was asked about his team's next challenge.
"I'm a realist," said the straight-shooting Kennedy, the SEC Coach of the Year who everyone involved with this tournament knows is one of the country's brightest and best young coaches. "We'll play in a tournament. But it won't be the four-letter one."
It won't be the NCAA, according to Kennedy. It will be the three-letter one - the NIT. The Rebels have bid to host, and there's a solid chance that they will.
At moments like these, when so much is on the line and there is so much left to play for and the focus is set on winning that one more big game to reach a goal, anything less doesn't seem worthy. But the Rebels say they want to play again and see how far they can go - even if the tourney isn't that four-letter variety.
"This is the first time in four years I'll be playing in postseason," said senior guard Todd Abernethy, who had eight points today. "I'm excited about that. I'm grateful for the opportunity, and we've done some big things this year at Ole Miss and for this basketball program. So it's going to be fun to play at home again (if the Rebels get to host). We just want to see how many games we can win and how far we can go."
Senior guard Clarence Sanders, the only Rebel in double digits with 21 points, agreed with his fellow teammate.
"This is my first time to be playing in the postseason, too," Sanders said. "I'm just happy to still be playing, and I hope to play at home."
The Rebels' challenge to make it to the NCAA Tournament likely meant a win over Florida, the defending national champions, the top seed from the SEC East, and the overall SEC regular season champs with a host of players who will play in a three-letter league - NBA - after their time in Gainesville is through.
The Gators came out aggressively, much like they did when they jumped on Georgia 17-0 Friday night in a 17-point Gator win at 74-57.
Florida was up 13-2 just five minutes in and the Rebels missed some shots that, while nobody should call easy because of the competition, they have made many times this season. Some missed jumpers, some layups, many of the same shots they made in an 80-60 romp over LSU one night earlier.
But nobody doubted if the Rebels would hang tough. They did, but overcoming a Gator club that is at least one of the top two or three favorites to win the NCAA Tournament this season was a monumental task.
Ole Miss was only down eight points at 30-22 with 2:22 to go in the first period when the Gators went on a run the rest of the way to halftime. A 7-0 run, ignited by Lee Humphrey's 3-pointer to make it 33-22 and finished off with a trey by Walter Hodge, made it 37-22 at the break.
The Rebels trailed Florida by nineteen points (45-26) in Gainesville at halftime on Jan. 20 in their only other meeting this season. The Rebs won the second-half battle 44-34 but ulitmately it wasn't enough in a 79-70 loss.
Ole Miss needed some more of that same type grit and heart and determination in the second half of this one. We saw that today. They gave it all they had. They cut it down to 10 points at 49-39 with 12:32 left on a couple of free throws by Kenny Williams. But Florida kicked it back up a notch and proved once again why they are the team and program they are.
A Corey Brewer 3-pointer quickly made it 52-39. After Jermey Parnell made two free throws, it was Humphrey again, who Kennedy called one of the best shooters in the country, for three and a 55-41 UF lead.
When Taurean Green hit a 3-pointer with six minutes left, the Gators had their biggest lead at 75-50.
"We knew Ole Miss was playing great basketball," said Florida head coach Billy Donovan, his team now 28-5 on the season. "We know they are a tough, hard-nosed team. Their kids really compete. We knew it was going to be a battle."
His kids were ready for it.
"I thought we played well," he said. "In the second half, our defensive intensity was good. We knew Ole Miss came back on us at Gainesville. We didn't allow that to happen this time."
Brewer led UF with 22 points. Humphrey, with 17 points, said they knew Ole Miss would be tough.
"They compete as hard as anybody in the country," the senior guard said. "We knew we'd have to come in and play with a lot of energy and play well to win."
But the Gators normally do that, and with their talent, it's the total package for wins and titles.
Kennedy said Florida's defense makes you alter some of the things you normally do.
"They press up on you and you have to have ball movement," he said. "Normally we do that, but we didn't do a very good job of that today. So we ended up trying to dribble drive and create off the bounce. We're so much smaller than them that we couldn't get the ball over the top. When we got some clean looks, I thought we rushed things some. We got out of rhythm trying to catch up. We were looking for that mysterious eight-point shot that we couldn't seem to find."
What the Rebels, 20-game winners for the first time since 2001-02, did find this season were many. They found they could win again. They found their fans again. They found that if they gave it their all and followed the lead of their coach, they'd be playing in the postseason - all of them for the very first time in college.
"We think NIT now," said Abernethy with some resignation in his voice when asked in the press conference about the team's chances of playing again. "If we'd have won this one, it would have been big, but........"
His voice trailed, knowing there was no NCAA reward. But he and his teammates will play again, and perhaps at home again where they were 15-1.
It felt and looked like the end today, but it isn't. This team, as it should, will be rewarded with more games to play.
A special season continues. A trip to New York's Madison Square Garden will likely now be the goal.
Rebs await postseason call; likely the NIT
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